The cycle began early for Sam Bruce. One of the top wide receiver recruits in the class of 2016, Bruce collected more than 10 scholarship offers by the summer after his freshman season at St. Thomas Aquinas (Fla.) High. After weighing his options, Bruce verbally committed to Miami last July. “It’s in my backyard and I know all my family will be able to attend my games,” he said, according to the Miami Herald.
Yet it didn’t take long before the strength of his pledge was called into question. A month later Rivals.com published a report in which Bruce said, “It looks like I’m not changing [schools].” In December he said he wanted to hear from Oregon, explaining that “on a scale of one to 10 to Miami, I'm a seven,” per The Oregonian. By January Bruce indicated to Rivals.com that he was only 60% committed.
As of Tuesday Bruce still lists himself as a Miami commit on his Twitter profile. However, the tone of his public comments cast doubt as to whether he will sign with the program on National Signing Day. While the uncertainty conveyed by the coverage of Bruce’s recruitment has not been out of the ordinary, it lends insight into the complex nature of the modern college football recruiting commitment.
As the number of publications that cover recruiting has grown over the past 20 years, the term “commitment” has become increasingly difficult to decipher. It encompasses an array of subcategories that obscure what seems like a relatively straightforward gesture. Phrases such as heavy lean, soft commit, silent commit and solid to school X have risen in popularity, all of which imply varying levels of assurance that a prospect will go on to play for a given school.
When a player verbally commits, the general understanding is he is declaring his intention to enroll. In many instances, though, this conclusion is far from accurate.
The meaning of commitment was not always so abstruse. Allen Wallace, who began to cover recruiting with the publication of his magazine SuperPrep in the mid-1980s, says public commitments used to be rare. As a reporter, he attempted to focus on predicting where players would sign come February. On the occasions in which prospects did issue verbal commitments, Wallace says, the process did not involve sifting through a ream of ambiguous proclamations.
Through a series of interviews, Wallace—who has since left the industry—says he was able to separate players’ favorite schools from their weaker options and then confirm commitments through assistants. “I thought I was doing a good job, but I realized that I was only at the tip of the iceberg,” Wallace says. “I mean, because what the kid was really telling me was, ‘I’m committed.’ But to me, he’s just saying, ‘Well, they’re a real strong favorite.’ So that just changed my emphasis.”
Wallace publicized information about recruits in magazines and on fax lists. This proved to be sufficient for a while, but the Internet changed the way news was disseminated. It also facilitated an expansion of recruiting-focused media: Beyond local newspapers, there are now a bevy of outlets devoted to tracking recruiting, including Rivals.com, 247Sports.com and Scout.com—all of which have team-specific sites—plus ESPN, Bleacher Report and SB Nation.
Yet while more prospects are being identified earlier in their high school careers than ever before, coverage has become diluted, Wallace says. A combination of a desire for expediency in a faster news cycle and recruits’ mounting unwillingness to speak with media, among other factors, has produced a steady stream of reports that—in Wallace’s view—fail to provide insight into players’ thinking.
Another byproduct of the boom in coverage is an urge to attach newsworthiness to statements that may lack significance. For example, in some cases there could be a small difference between a player noting that a specific school is his leader and saying that he is leaning toward that school. Should the two be treated as separate developments? Or are they one in the same?
Put more simply: Which expressions hold meaning in a recruiting lexicon that has become overwhelmingly vague?
Mike Farrell, the national recruiting director for Rivals.com who has been covering college football recruiting since 1998, says some of the rhetoric used in concert with players’ commitments has been in place for more than a decade, while other aspects have evolved. “It’s funny, because a lot of the terminology was created based on what started to occur with the recruiting,” Farrell says.
Oral commitment, Farrell says, has been replaced by the term verbal commitment, while leader is more in vogue than lean. Though flip and decommit have endured in the commitment dictionary to describe prospects switching schools, soft verbal is a newer creation used to label players who have committed to one program but still intend to visit others. Additional expressions include coaches squeezing players to commit, and placeholder commitments—ones that are temporary by design.
What does it all mean? Ben Zimmer, a linguist and language columnist for The Wall Street Journal, points out that commitments could be interpreted as “speech acts,” in which people attempt to carry out a task using language. However, he likened the proliferation of convoluted recruiting vocabulary to legal jargon.
“The more elaborate this whole sort of system becomes, the more elaborate the language becomes to try to sort of classify potential decisions,” he says. “The whole process gets so amped up, so amplified through the constant analysis and everyone watching and waiting that the language gets amped up to match it.”
Anthony Russo, a class of 2016 quarterback from Archbishop Wood Catholic (Pa.) High who committed to Rutgers on May 18, says he believes “once you commit, that should be your final decision.” South Carolina quarterback commit Brandon McIlwain echoed that sentiment. “[A commitment] means that the player has all intentions in their mind that they’re going to that school,” McIlwain says. “I feel like it just means that the rest of your recruitment should be pretty much shut down.”
Others prospects do not feel commitments connote the same level of certitude. Our Lady of Mount Carmel (Md.) High defensive end Josh Kaindoh says the only case in which a commitment should be considered final is when a player gets his “dream offer.” Otherwise, “I think that everybody should explore their options,” he says.
Or, as South Brunswick (N.J.) High receiver and Rutgers commit Mohamed Jabbie puts it, “As teenagers, we’re really indecisive about where we want to go. One day we have a school we want to go to, and then the next day we’re like, ‘Nah, I don’t want to go to that school.’ It’s not unacceptable. It’s not bad.”
Perhaps that’s the root of the confusion. Recruiting is notoriously fickle. And in an era in which decommitments have become commonplace—according to research conducted by SI.com’s Andy Staples in January 2012, 14.6% of players ranked in the Rivals100 between ’07 and ’11 renounced their commitments at some point, and 62% of those signed with a different school than the one to which they initially pledged—it only makes sense that coverage of recruiting would be the same.
In any event, as the amount of ink spent on recruiting grows, fans are likely to come across more obscure phrases and terms. A college football commitment should be a simple development. In reality, it can be very difficult to comprehend.